A Reveal investigation finds the resettlement agency relies on clandestine shelters to hold unaccompanied minors. Credit: Gabriel Hongsdusit/Reveal

The federal government has acknowledged that 15 to 20 migrant children in its custody are being held outside its network of publicly disclosed shelters, a day after Reveal reported that the government is housing unaccompanied children in secret facilities without the knowledge of their attorneys.

In a statement today, government spokesperson Evelyn Stauffer said the Office of Refugee Resettlement relies on these “out of network” facilities for children who require “highly specialized care.” She denied that the agency uses clandestine facilities to house minors, saying the shelters are state-licensed and monitored monthly by the refugee agency.

“It is long standing practice for ORR to provide specialized care out of our network of shelters,” Stauffer wrote. “ORR is committed to ensuring that all (unaccompanied alien children), including those in out of network placements, have access to proper care and services.”

But Holly Cooper, an attorney who represents unaccompanied minors in the agency’s care, said she had been unaware of the facilities, despite the government’s obligation, under a 1997 court settlement, to provide an accurate accounting of where children were held.

Cooper said the facilities she has learned of so far specialize in mental and behavioral health. There are at least five in Arkansas, Florida, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Virginia, holding children as young as 9 years old.

Stauffer wrote that when children are sent to an “out of network” facility, the government also assigns an in-network shelter to manage the child’s case and that “attorneys are also aware of their placement.”

But Cooper says she was never made aware of these facilities, which would have appeared on a population count regularly provided to her by the federal government. “(We were) never provided the list until we asked for it,” she said.

Cooper’s job is to ensure that the government is complying with the Flores Settlement Agreement, a 1997 pact that sets the standards for how unaccompanied minors are treated while detained and calls for their swift release. Her team has focused on minors who’ve been transferred out of regular shelters and into residential treatment facilities that treat youth with mental health and behavioral challenges. While some residential treatment facilities operate within the refugee agency’s previously known network of shelters, Cooper says the five sites were never disclosed to her team.

The federal government is supposed to provide attorneys representing detained children with a regular and detailed census of each minor in the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s custody. The government’s secret use of the facilities appears to violate the long-held agreement.

Federal databases listing spending, grants and contract awards make no mention of these “out of network” providers. Reveal requested information about the agency’s use of the facilities through a Freedom of Information Act request in November, but has so far received no response.

It’s still not clear how long these children have been held in these facilities, or whether the agency is increasingly relying on placements outside its shelter network. And it’s still not clear how many youths are being held at these out-of-network facilities.

Stauffer’s tally of approximately 15-20 minors doesn’t satisfy Cooper, who says she’s still learning of more children who may be held in such facilities. “An agency that’s in charge of the custody and care of children should be able to give an accurate number of the children in its custody and care with precision,” she told Reveal.

The team of attorneys that Cooper works with plans to visit one of the facilities, Millcreek Behavioral Health in Arkansas, the first week in April.

While Stauffer described these placements as a “long standing practice,” former officials in the agency under the Obama administration told Reveal they weren’t aware of such arrangements when they worked for the agency.

Aura Bogado can be reached at abogado@revealnews.org, and Patrick Michels can be reached at pmichels@revealnews.org. Follow them on Twitter: @aurabogado and @PatrickMichels.

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Aura Bogado is a senior reporter and producer at Reveal and a 2022 Andrew Carnegie Fellow. Her impact-driven work covers immigration, with a focus on migrant children in federal custody. She's earned an Edward R. Murrow Award, a Hillman Prize and an Investigative Reporters & Editors FOI Award, and she was a finalist for a National Magazine Award and an Emmy nominee. Bogado was a 2021 data fellow at the Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. She was previously a staff writer at Grist, where she wrote about the intersection of race and the environment, and also worked for Colorlines and The Nation.

Patrick Michels is a former reporter for Reveal, covering immigration. His coverage focused on immigration courts and legal access, privatization in immigration enforcement, and the government's care for unaccompanied children. He contributed to Reveal's award-winning project on indigenous land rights disputes created by oil pipelines. Previously, he was a staff writer at the Texas Observer, where his work included an investigation into corruption at the Department of Homeland Security and how the state's broken guardianship system allowed elder abuse to go unchecked. Michels was a Livingston Award finalist for his investigation into the deadly armored car industry. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's degree in photojournalism from the University of Texas at Austin, where his work focused on government contractors grappling with trauma and injuries from their time in Iraq.